Carolina Panthers

On Cam Newton, defensive change, O-line questions from Panthers coach Ron Rivera

With a full bowl of blueberries and pineapple chunks, a plate of fluffy scrambled eggs and a hot coffee in front of him, Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera updated reporters on a myriad of topics Tuesday at the NFL’s annual meetings coaches’ breakfast.

Here are the most important points:

Cam Newton is making steady progress

The quarterback had shoulder surgery in February, and according to Rivera, continues to rehabilitate well.

“Everything has been good. We’re really pleased with his workouts,” said Rivera, who is receiving reports from the team’s medical staff since he can’t meet with players until April. “Reports we got have been all positive. I look forward to seeing him soon, but just very happy that things are trending in the right direction.”

Rivera did not provide a timeline for Newton’s return saying he didn’t want to pressure the quarterback into coming back before he’s ready.

Left tackle Matt Kalil’s release

The Panthers designated left tackle Matt Kalil as a post-June 1 cut earlier this month, which will clear up about $7.5 million in salary cap space on June 2.

But the biggest factors in Kalil’s release were not related to money, said Rivera.

“I think just a fresh start, more than anything else,” he said. “I also think, from my understanding, that he was not going to be prepared until we got to training camp.”

Kalil had an arthroscopic procedure on his knee during training camp and missed the entire 2018 season. He signed a one-year deal with the Houston Texans last week.

Offensive line signings

Carolina invested in its offensive line in free agency, signing former Denver Broncos center Matt Paradis to a three-year, $27 million deal and re-signing tackle Daryl Williams for one year and $6 million.

Williams tested the free agent market first, but wasn’t attracting the lengthy, high-dollar contract he wanted — likely because he was sidelined for the 2018 season with a knee injury. His one-year contract with Carolina is ideal so he can prove to teams his knee is healthy, and stay in the city he’s come to know as “home”.

“Being able to get Daryl back was a little bit of a surprise, but a very pleasant surprise,” said Rivera.

Rivera was also excited about Paradis, whom he and offensive line coach John Matsko met with the day Paradis signed his contract.

“Coach Matsko and I sat down and really gauged his football intelligence and that was really good to see, to listen to him,” said Rivera. “I like how tenacious he is as a player on tape. You see him finish guys off a lot like (former center) Ryan Kalil, and he’s athletic like Ryan, too.

“Honestly, when I watched his tape, a lot of things I did was I compared him to Ryan. And I really thought he was very close to what Ryan does.”

Broncos general manager John Elway mentioned during a radio interview this week that he had “big concerns” with Paradis’ ankle, which he fractured last season.

But the Panthers don’t share those concerns.

“The only thing I’m gonna say is we cleared him medically,” said Rivera. “We’re very confident, and we look forward to having him out there with us.”

State of the offensive line

Despite the Paradis and Williams signings, the Panthers still must address some pressing questions about their offensive line.

Left guard Greg Van Roten played every offensive snap for Carolina in 2018, but will he have competition this spring?

There is some speculation that Williams could play left guard, or he could compete with Taylor Moton at right tackle — or even move to the left, though Moton is the stronger player there.

Depth is also a concern, and the Panthers learned a hard lesson last season when they struggled to find adequate replacements for injured linemen late in the year.

Rivera said he feels good about his veteran starters.

“There’s not really a lot of concern,” he said. “Probably the biggest question mark is who we’re gonna work towards that left tackle position. But we feel really good about the candidates. We feel really good about them and we’ll see how things (play) out the rest of the way through free agency and the draft.”

State of the defensive line

Carolina will continue to start defensive linemen Kawann Short, Mario Addison and Dontari Poe. But a starting pass-rusher opposite Addison and interior depth remain big needs.

Backup defensive tackle Kyle Love is testing the free agency market, and the team must also make a decision on defensive tackle Vernon’s Butler’s option soon. Rivera said the staff will talk about Butler in the near future, but his comments on Love were a lot stronger.

“We would love to have (Love) back,” said Rivera. “He’s very dynamic, very important to what we do with our defensive line ... He’s one of those important cogs that you have to have, that guy who just does the dirty job. Hopefully we can get something worked out and get him back.”

Curtis Samuel’s ceiling?

It will be an important season for third-year receiver Curtis Samuel, who missed the first four weeks of the 2018 season after undergoing a heart procedure. Samuel played in 13 games, finishing the year with 494 yards on 39 catches and five touchdowns.

Rivera heard the criticism from fans who were unhappy that Samuel wasn’t getting more snaps when he first returned from his procedure, as he got back into shape.

“Let’s don’t forget, he had that medical (issue) early on,” said Rivera. “I had everybody screaming at me, ‘Oh, he’s gotta play more, he’s gotta play more!’ He can’t play more if he’s not in football shape! That’s what everybody has to hold their horses (about) and understand, is that the young man had to get back into football shape.”

That doesn’t sound like it will be an issue in 2019.

“He’s got a high ceiling,” said Rivera. “He’s got tremendous football skill, he’s got great football knowledge...He’s competitive and he wants to succeed.

“If you watch his work ethic, it’s impressive. You see him coming before practice to catch balls, you see him catching balls after practice...It reminds me a little bit of what (former cornerback) Josh Norman used to do, and I thought that was pretty impressive.

Shuffling secondary

While the Panthers still need to draft a safety and more cornerback depth, the secondary is starting to take clearer shape. Veteran nickel Captain Munnerlyn was cut earlier this month, and Rivera said second-year safety Rashaan Gaulden will compete with third-year cornerback Corn Elder for the starting job.

Backup cornerbacks Ross Cockrell and Kevon Seymour both suffered season-ending injuries in training camp last summer but have continued to rehab and will likely be cleared to return in 2019. They add insurance behind starting outside corners James Bradberry and Donte Jackson.

“I think both (Cockrell and Seymour) have been doing a great job rehabbing, from the reports I get,” said Rivera. “Very happy about their progress, and I do look forward to having them both back out there.”

More multiple

Rivera was noticeably excited about being more hybrid on defense in 2019, mixing three-and-four-man fronts to keep offenses off balance.

The Panthers worked more often in multiple fronts at the end of the 2018 season, with Rivera calling defensive plays. But the loss of a key player hampered their plans.

“If you look at last year, a lot of the 30-front (three-man front) stuff I was wanting to do, we were doing with Shaq (Thompson). And then Shaq hurts himself during the first New Orleans game so we don’t have him for the last two games,” said Rivera. “The idea for the last two was to really see what we could do with the odd front. And unfortunately losing Shaq, we just couldn’t do it.”

Signing defensive end/outside linebacker Bruce Irvin to a one-year, $4 million contract gives the Panthers a boost in versatility, and will keep a veteran presence on defense after the Panthers lost several to cuts, retirement and free agency.

“We’re losing the heart and soul of our team in a guy like (linebacker) Thomas Davis,” said Rivera. “You have to bring in a guy who has that kind of reputation, and Bruce has that. Bruce is one of those leadership-type guys who will come in, will fit in and will help these young guys understand what it takes.

“... I’m excited about having him there. His ability, and who he is, and his position flexibility, it’s going to play in to some of the things that I’d like to see us do in terms of even fronts versus odd fronts and different packages of rushers. I think it’s exciting for me personally, but it’s going to be even more exciting for our football team.”

Jourdan has covered the Carolina Panthers as a beat writer since 2016, and froze during Pennsylvania winters as an award-winning Penn State football beat writer before that. A 2014 graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, she’s on a never-ending quest for trick plays and the stories that give football fans goosebumps.
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